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Soul Mountain: Gao Xinjian's journey through time and tradition

Written by eastern writer on Friday, August 06, 2010

Blazing a new trail for the Chinese novel, Gao Xinjian’s Soul Mountain combines autobiography, the supernatural, and social commentary. Xinjian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, draws elements of the plot from a period in his life of self-imposed exile in Sichuan province and later on the east coast of China. This seclusion as well as the chance for spiritual pilgrimage enabled Xinjian to escape the political persecution brought by his writings.

In Sichuan province, Shamanistic customs and traditions still flourish. Xinjian incorporates into the novel his experiences with monks, folk-singers, and recluses, and so portrays the history and mythology of the people around him. Through Xinjian’s writing, history and reality blend with mythology and the natural distortion of time, and perceptions of the past and present blend with history and folklore into one experiential moment.

Xinjian’s writing appropriates Daoist concepts, according to which one pursues pure wisdom by exploring the paradoxes of truth. The contrast of truth and wisdom appears often in the book, especially when Xinjian discusses his earlier disillusionment upon discovering that his immersion in books did not endow him with wisdom, but rather prevented him from truly living.

The novel’s perspective changes rapidly, the narrative voice shifting among first, second and third person. Each character’s viewpoint reflects aspects of a single, fractured consciousness. Xinjian thus blurs the distinction between personal and social identities; his young female companion represents not only his desires but also the emerging sexual freedom that began to appear in the post-Mao era. Yet Xinjian’s prose is enigmatic, and the novel’s shifting perspective and style force the reader to search himself in interpreting the story, and to question internal and social mores.

Despite its ambitious philosophical premise, Soul Mountain has a very straightforward plot, which centers on a spiritual journey that mirrors Xinjian’s. The protagonist is meant to be a universal character, taking the forms of "I," "you," "he" and "she." By alternating the personal perspective from chapter to chapter, beginning one with "I" and the next with "you," Xinjian forces the reader to compare and contrast these two different facets of one self.

Undertaking its own Odyssey, this tale provides a detailed account of a modern journey. The main protagonist takes crowded trains, hitchhikes and travels on foot. He travels the hard way into the interior of China, often blown off of his path or staying longer than necessary in one place.

Further complicating the journey, the protagonist has a series of short-lived relationships with a series of women, always referred to as "she." The relations range from ephemeral to platonic to carnally real. Yet the sexuality that Xinjian explores in Soul Mountain has overtones of misogyny. Xinjian described one of the "she"s as a "struggling wild animal" who "suddenly turns docile" with him. In Soul Mountain the understanding of women’s sexuality remains undeveloped and so every "she" is objectified and thereby distorted.

Many images are culled from the protagonist’s consciousness: "Ponds with floating duckweed, small town wine shops, windows of upstairs rooms overhanging the street, arched stone bridges, canopied boats passing under arched bridges and a dried up old well." In order to enhance his consciousness of his origins, he gains a sense of wisdom through childhood memories and through the collection of traditional lore, ranging from tales of bandits to an account of a monastery raid.

Just as the protagonist visits the past, he also ponders his fate. An enlightening encounter with death resonates with a personal crisis in Xinjian’s past. In 1982, Xinjian was falsely diagnosed with cancer, which compelled him to reevaluate his life, seeking solace in the classic Confuscianist text I Ching or The Book of Changes. With personal insight, Xinjian vividly captures his protagonist’s fearful wait for a fateful X-ray: "While awaiting the pronouncement of the death sentence, I was in this state of nothingness, looking at the autumn sun outside the window, silently intoning Namo Amitofu, over and over in my heart." The emotional and spiritual upheaval Xinjian underwent pushed him to question the very nature of his existence and the fruits of this journey are displayed in Soul Mountain.

Many stories collected along this journey involve cruelty. The first woman that he comes across describes her nausea before love, her constant suffering and her desire for a death that will cause others to pity and admire her, a martyrdom. Hostile encounters in the novel seem to allude to Xinjian’s experiences with the Chinese government. One story that directly addresses the Cultural Revolution involves the savage execution of political enemies of the radicals. However, the underlying currents of violence are oddly juxtaposed with the theme of spiritual growth, and the author never resolves whether any character can ever truly move beyond these atrocities. By refusing to tell his own story and simultaneously trying to relate universal themes, Xinjian exceeds the limits of his fiction. Constantly wavering between a quest for an individual enlightenment and an attempt to stir social consciousness, the story seems adrift. The journey, taken by the author, the book and the reader, regardless of whether it is through harsh reality or a fractured psyche, rewards and disconcerts the reader before it recedes, hidden in the leaves of the book. [Yale Review of Book]

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